Emmy season is upon us yet again! Emmy nominations were announced Thursday, July 12th, with “Game of Thrones” leading the pack at 22 nominations. As we speed toward the September 17th telecast, Awards Circuit is taking a look at all of the major categories. Each acting, writing and directing nominee must choose one episode to be judged on. Lead acting nominees in the miniseries/TV movie category do not submit singular episodes and are judged for the series as a whole. The series nominees all submit six episodes. Each Friday, we will watch all the nominated episodes in a given set of categories and provide a power ranking of the nominees.
Two returning champions return to defend their titles this year. Sterling K. Brown and Donald Glover each hope to bring home consecutive trophies for Lead Actor in a Drama and Lead Actor in a Comedy respectively. However, they will have to face off with bright newcomers and overdue performers in their final season first before prevailing. On the miniseries/TV movie side, the front runner is more of a newcomer. Darren Criss is the most high profile for his work on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” However, two past winners and a pop star hope to vanquish Criss and take the win.
Read our analysis of the submitted episodes for the nominated lead acting performances below:
Best Actor in a Drama
Jason Bateman as Marty in “Ozark” – “The Toll”
Plot: During his next sermon, Mason falters. Wendy and the kids are caught trying to flee their home. Marty brokers a deal between Jacob and Del.
While “Ozark” didn’t get attention in all Emmy categories, voters seemed to be interested in Bateman. On top of nominating him here, he also received a nomination for directing this episode. Perhaps that’s the reason he submitted it. It seems the Emmy voters like the episode and it can only help to see that Bateman directed it. However, his performance isn’t as groundbreaking as the others in the category. Bateman plays frantic well. However, we learn little about Marty or his goals. It’s a lot of Bateman scrambling, but little action or layers to his character.
Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson in “This Is Us” – “Number Three”
Plot: Randall and Beth are faced with a hard choice; Jack takes Randall on a college tour.
Sterling K. Brown has won two consecutive Emmys heading into this Emmy season. He experienced a career breakthrough with “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” as Chris Darden, which won him his first award. Last year, Brown won this category for “This Is Us” as Randall. While last year saw him searching out his dying birth father, this season saw less engrossing storylines for Randall. His submitted episode, “Number Three,” centers around Randall at all points in his life. The biggest tear-jerking moments involve Randall saying goodbye to his foster daughter, Deja. If voters are voting with their heartstrings, this episode will help Brown win a third. However, “This Is Us” lost nomination count and Brown’s submission is less of a sure thing than last year’s. He can also experience vote splitting from Milo Ventimiglia as Jack, who we saw die this past season.
Ed Harris as The Man in Black in “Westworld” – “Vanishing Point”
Plot: The Man in Black confronts his troubled past; Charlotte forms a plan to kill all the hosts.
After being snubbed last year, Harris upgraded himself to lead and finally reaped a nomination. It helps that his character gets more to do throughout season two. Harris’ submitted episode, “Vanishing Point” starts with The Man in Black in modern cocktail attire. The episode is framed around his past as he watches his wife kill herself. This is intercut with him being wounded within Westworld. Harris gets to be more than a snarling villain. It’s a welcome change from what we normally see for this character. Still, it doesn’t seem enough to win. In fact, past nominee Jeffrey Wright has a better track record. However, on a whole, “Westworld” is down in nominations in key categories, which could signal voters are losing interest.
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings in “The Americans” – “START”
Plot: The Jennings family face a choice that will change their lives forever.
Matthew Rhys is going all in for the final season of “The Americans.” He submits “START,” the series finale of the show. It’s here we find the Jennings family on the run and making truly wrenching decisions. Rhys gets a particularly powerful scene as he and his family are confronted by Stan (Noah Emmerich), their FBI agent friend. Rhys’ Philip has always been the more remorseful of the couple. That makes this show of confidence and honesty a heartbreaking development for the character. As the show went on, the Emmy’s love continued to grow. If they are looking to bid the series farewell, Rhys could find himself winning his first Emmy. In the past, surprises have happened when people submit the series finale of a show (see Kyle Chandler for “Friday Night Lights”).
Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson in “This Is Us” – “The Car”
Plot: The history of the Pearsons told through the life of the family car; Rebecca finds solace with an old friend.
One of the biggest watercooler moments from TV this year was Ventimiglia’s Jack SuperBowl death via slow cooker. Ventimiglia wisely chose “The Car,” the episode that follows his death. This features tons of moments where Jack gets to be the best Dad ever. The episode is told around Jack’s Wagoneer. This car is where Jack comforts Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as she awaits stressful test results. We also see Jack help take his daughter to Alanis Morissette and mend the relationship between his sons. The only moments Ventimiglia isn’t in are the ones where the family attends his funeral. It’s a powerful episode all wrapped around his character. Voters who love Jack will feel their tears compelling them to vote for Ventimiglia. However, this could mean he vote splits more than usual with fellow “This Is Us” nominee Sterling K. Brown.
Jeffrey Wright as Bernard in “Westworld” – “The Passenger”
Plot: Everyone converges at the Valley Beyond.
Like Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright is the third “Westworld” alum to get two consecutive nominations. Wright submits the supersized “Westworld” season two finale, which features a lot of everything. This also means a lot of Bernard’s history as he acts heroically against the decimation of the bots. It starts with his perspective and gives him the final words on the proceedings. It’s a very strong showcase. The Emmys have rewarded Jeffrey Wright in the past for his incredible work in “Angels in America,” also on HBO. It seems unlikely he will win an additional Emmy this year for “Westworld,” as the show has gone down in nominations. Yet, as a past nominee and fan favorite, he stands a better chance than Ed Harris, despite his strong episode submission.
- Matthew Rhys – “The Americans”
- Sterling K Brown – “This Is Us”
- Milo Ventimiglia – “This Is Us”
- Jeffrey Wright – “Westworld”
- Ed Harris – “Westworld”
- Jason Bateman – “Ozark”
Best Actor in a Comedy Series
Anthony Anderson as Andre “Dre” Johnson in “Black-ish” – “Advance to Go (Collect $200)”
Plot: The Johnsons get together to play Monopoly during family game night and the competition is intense. As the night progresses, alliances are formed and some family members are pushed to their limits. Meanwhile, Bow makes it clear how she feels about Junior’s girlfriend, Megan.
Anthony Anderson has been nominated all four seasons of “Black-ish” for his fiery, fun performance as patriarch Dre Johnson. This season, Anderson submits an episode where Dre plays right into his family’s dynamic with a heated game of Monopoly. The episode gives everyone in the cast a lot of fun things to do, including Dre. Unfortunately, the episode revolves around Dre behaving like a complete jerk during the game. It all ends with him getting his comeuppance. However, with much more juicy storylines through this exemplary “Black-ish” season, it’s strange Anderson would submit this. There is also the matter of Anderson’s personal life, as he undergoes an assault investigation by LAPD, that could also hurt his chances of winning. “Black-ish” has been a series Emmy has really liked for multiple years now and seems primed to win soon. Unfortunately, that year doesn’t seem to be this year.
Ted Danson as Arthur in “The Good Place” – “Dance Dance Revolution”
Plot: Michael continues working out the kinks in his plan and Eleanor discovers a secret.
One of the best surprises among this year’s Emmy nominees was Ted Danson getting recognized. His work on “The Good Place” stands as one of the funniest and most ambitious comic performances. Danson’s Michael is the devilish architect of “The Bad Place” who tries to cover up his mistakes before becoming attached to his prisoners. His submitted episode, “Dance Dance Revolution,” does its best job of introducing the uninitiated to the show. As Michael’s efforts to torture his human subjects continue to fail, he strategizes how to perfect his world. It gives Danson lots of room to play and have fun with the character. Unfortunately the show is a little hard to catch up on unless one is a fan. Plus, the lack of widespread nominations for “The Good Place” makes it harder for Danson to win.
Larry David as Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – “Fatwa!”
Plot: Larry has a scheduling conflict, takes issue with some work associates, and hosts a pair of ungrateful house guests. It’s also the wedding day of Sammy (Jeff and Susie’s daughter).
Larry David gets to face off against Lin-Manuel Miranda in the season finale of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Lots of hilarity ensues. In fact, David is funny throughout as he gets to act the moral police to many a small atrocity. Overall, it’s an incredibly fun showcase episode for what makes “Curb Your Enthusiasm” great. The prospects of actors playing versions of themselves haven’t been too sunny at the Emmys. The last time someone has won for a performance like this was (arguably) Ray Romano for “Everybody Loves Raymond” in 2002. The award typically goes to showy comedic performances like Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”), Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”) or Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”). Though Larry David is good here, this makes it seem pretty unlikely he wins for this.
Donald Glover as Earn/Teddy Perkins in “Atlanta” – “Teddy Perkins”
Plot: When Darius goes to pick up a piano, he meets Teddy Perkins, a strange, eccentric man who makes him feel uneasy.
Donald Glover stands out by taking a big risk in his episode submission. “Teddy Perkins” does not feature Earn, Glover’s character and the lead of the show. Instead, Glover plays the titular role as Teddy Perkins, a creepy, rich loner who grows more sympathetic and more sinister as the episode goes on. The makeup involved in the performance makes Glover’s appearance resemble that of a Michael Jackson-esque character. He’s utterly unrecognizable to the point that, the first time I watched the episode, I did not realize it was Glover until after it ended. This kind of commitment and creativity could lead Glover to his second consecutive win in this category. On the flip side, voters may be attached to Glover’s performance as Earn and be confused by the submission. This could cause voters to go with Bill Hader, who is nipping at Glover’s heels in this tight race.
Bill Hader as Barry in “Barry” – “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast and Keep Going”
Plot: After a shootout at the airstrip, Barry must make a tough decision to avoid capture. Sally worries her performance in MacBeth will be compromised and ruin her chance at impressing a top talent agent.
Bill Hader is having an unstoppable year at the Emmys. He has four nominations this year alone (Lead Actor, Writing and Directing for “Barry”; Guest Actor for “SNL”). This makes fourteen career nominations, with his only win coming from producing “South Park” in 2009. Without any win for him in the acting categories, this could be the year for Hader. His episode submission for “Barry” is quite incredible. It starts out with an intense and pivotal shooting that sends shockwaves through the episodes. Hader plays Barry’s PTSD off this incident brilliantly and even manages to make his character both funny and tragic through it all. It’s a high wire feat of acting that is hard to ignore. It is going to be neck and neck between him and fellow Emmy favorite, Donald Glover.
William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher in “Shameless” – “Sleepwalking”
Plot: Fiona has to go Gallagher to get what she wants. Carl must decide between military school and Cassidy, if she lets him. Ian is a wanted man.
Will voters ever ignore William H. Macy for “Shameless” in this category. Since switching from drama to comedy, Macy has racked up five consecutive nominations, including this year. The previous four times, he has lost. This year doesn’t look to be any different. In his submitted episode, Macy’s Frank putters around with another half-baked scheme to rob his son’s rich new friend. The grand payoff of this plot involves Frank hiding in a porta-potty toilet and walking around the rest of the episode covered in feces. Frank is barely in the episode and when he is, he’s more aggravating than entertaining. Macy possesses lots of gusto, but little else. He can prepare for another year as an also-ran.
- Donald Glover – “Atlanta”
- Bill Hader – “Barry”
- Ted Danson – “The Good Place”
- Larry David – “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
- Anthony Anderson – “Black-ish”
- William H. Macy – “Shameless”
Best Actor in a Limited Series or Made for TV Movie
Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso in “Genius: Picasso”
Plot: The life stories of history’s greatest minds. From their days as young adults to their final years we see their discoveries, loves, relationships, causes, flaws and genius.
Antonio Banderas gets to do a lot as Picasso. He’s expressive, vibrant and gets to grandstand as much as he could possibly want. However, much like Geoffrey Rush’s version of Einstein, the performance suffers as it only represents a third or a fourth of the story the show is trying to tell. We only get snippets and Emmy clip moments from Antonio Banderas, but none of the hard work it takes to build a character we wish to follow. It all comes off as hollow bait. Sure some will take the bait, but many others will probably go for the competition.
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
Plot: The murder of Gianni Versace turns the eyes of the world onto Miami Beach.
Darren Criss takes control of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and never lets go. As said assassin, Andrew Cunanan, Criss reveals the darkness, sadness and inner demons behind the character’s party gay exterior. Andrew lights up every room with his extroverted nature. However, this confidence is built on a foundation of poorly formed lies that consistently crumble. Criss nails the various transitions between struggling boy, magnanimous adult and troubled killer. It’s a full fledged performance that traverses multiple layers and only further reveals its depths with each additional episode. Criss deservedly commands the frontrunner spot and will likely win the Emmy for this performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose in “Patrick Melrose”
Plot: Patrick learns of his father’s passing and must travel to New York to collect his remains, whilst struggling with drug withdrawals.
The only thing more broad and showy than a tortured assassin is a narcissistic drug and alcohol addict. Past winner Benedict Cumberbatch enters the race as perhaps Darren Criss’ biggest competition. His Patrick Melrose must work through the rage and pain that plagues him once his father dies and his addictions begin to accelerate. Cumberbatch plays Melrose over multiple decades of his life and truly holds the miniseries together. The Emmys clearly love him. He’s been nominated six of the last seven years and even pulled off a shocking win in 2014 for “Sherlock: His Last Vow” against stiff competition. If voters are just checking the names of their favorite actors, Cumberbatch could win again.
Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill in “The Looming Tower”
Plot: A look at how the rivalry between the CIA and FBI inadvertently set the stage for the tragedy of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan.
The Emmys are huge fans of Jeff Daniels this year. On top of his nomination for “The Looming Tower,” he also finds himself nominated for “Godless” in the supporting category. He’s much more likely to win in that category than here. He gives a trademark committed performance as John O’Neill. As the lead of a show with such charged subject matter, Daniels is our trusted guide through everything. However, this isn’t flashy enough to wrestle away the win from his competition. The show itself, primed for Emmy love, didn’t even make it into the Best Miniseries category, showing lack of support for the project.
John Legend as Jesus Christ in “Jesus Christ: Superstar LIVE”
Plot: A live musical recounting the final days of Jesus Christ and those around him.
John Legend truly commands the screen as Jesus Christ. The pop star possesses the necessary joie de vivre and star power to anchor the latest live musical TV adaptation. It’s less an acting triumph (we always know we’re watching John Legend) and more of an exercise in chemistry. Still, Legend sells every emotion, every betrayal at a heightened, theatrical level. Add in the extra layer of difficulty with this being a live performance and you have a show stopping performance. However, while popular, these live performances haven’t produced an acting win before. Legend is a big enough name to contend for the prize. However, he might lose out to Emmy favorites (Cumberbatch) or showier performances (Criss).
Jesse Plemons as Robert Daly in “USS Callister – Black Mirror”
Plot: A woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.
Jesse Plemons is best when he’s over-committing to a comic beat. His previous nomination for “Fargo” allowed him to bring out the humanity in his bumbling Minnesotan. Here, Plemons relishes every moment he sinks into his role as the god-like commander of a Star Trek-esque ship. Plemons’ Robert is just an under-appreciated tech guy in the real world. This leads him to create within his video game a world modeled off his favorite show where he is God. In this world, he tortures those who ignore him in the real world. Plemons has tremendous fun with the role, which only makes his character more frightening. It’s full of gusto and commitment, which is great. However, it’s less dramatic and lacks the prestige that some of the other nominees possess. This puts him at a disadvantage for the win. However, he is more than worthy of his nomination.
- Darren Criss – “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
- Benedict Cumberbatch – “Patrick Melrose”
- John Legend – “Jesus Christ: Superstar LIVE”
- Jesse Plemons – “USS Callister – Black Mirror”
- Jeff Daniels – “The Looming Tower”